Christmas traditions take on many forms, from carriage rides in the snow to chestnuts roasting on an open fire. For many Saanich families, catching the latest panto from St. Luke’s Players is at the top of their holiday list.
And St. Luke’s is granting holiday wishes again this year, bringing Aladdin to the stage for a 13-show run between Dec. 16 and Jan. 2.
“It has very much become a family tradition over Christmas. Families have made that part of their Christmas and they rush out to get tickets,” said Merry Hallsor, who directed Alladin along with Dave Hitchcock.
Panto is short for pantomime, a British staple that traditionally runs from Boxing Day to New Year’s.
“It follows a formula, they’re almost always based on a fairy tale. They always have a dame who is played by an adult male. In this case, it’s Widow Twankey,” said Hallsor.
The pantomime also traditionally includes a princess and a principal boy, generally played by a young woman.
“In Britain, they’re very, very edgy,” she said. “We tame that part down quite a bit.”
In this version, Widow Twankey (Chris Harris) runs a laundry with her two sons, Aladdin (Abby Hodges) and Wishy-Washy. The evil Abanazar (Mike Chadwick) soon appears posing as Aladdin’s long-lost uncle from Canada, and persuades him and Princess Jasmine to retrieve an old magic lamp from inside a cave.
“Like any panto, there’s lots of chases. There’s chases through the audience and chases around the stage,” said Hitchcock, who also wrote the production along with his wife Helena. “And the audience is asked to stand up because they need to search under their seats to make sure they’re not hiding there. There’s a lot of audience participation the whole time.”
The pair become trapped in the cave and must find a way to escape the Genie (Steve Eastman) and the Guardians of the Cave, with the first act ending with Jasmine fainting at the sight of these scary monsters.
“Then they go into this humorous Ghostbusters-like dance and we find out they’re not scary after all,” said Hitchcock.
Aladdin features a cast of 21, including two portraying a camel. “Many pantos have an animal of some kind. In this case we’ve written a camel into the script and we call the camel Donald the Hump,” which Hitchcock says leads to more than a few jokes at the expense of the United States’ new president-elect.
Close to another 50 work on the production behind the scenes, filling the various roles from making costumes, building sets, handling the lighting, assembling the props and taking care of the concession. Several months of effort have already been put in before the curtain rises on the first performance.
“We started having meetings in May. Over the summer, the costume lady was looking at patterns and fabrics, the lighting person was thinking about the effects,” said Hallsor. “We auditioned in September and then started serious rehearsals. It actually consumes a big part of your life for a year.”
This is the fourth panto that Hallsor has been a part of since coming to Victoria, while Hitchcock has been involved in all 11 pantos that St. Luke’s has performed.
“It’s like growing a flower or having kids and seeing them develop. They start from a really raw product, and you see them getting better. You see the costumes coming together, you see the sets coming together, you see the actors developing,” he said.
“In the end, you step back, and we watch every performance from the back of the hall, and we say ‘Wow, that’s pretty good.’ And we hope the audience will say the same. That’s the ultimate, to get the audience to enjoy it as much as we do.”
And if ticket sales are any indication, the audience can’t get enough. Close to 80 per cent of the tickets were snapped up within the first week of going on sale.
“We do 13 performances and we put 130 people in that little hall for every performance. We’re always sold out,” said Hitchcock.
Aladdin takes the stage at St. Luke’s Hall, 3821 Cedar Hill X Rd., Dec. 16, 21, 22, 23, 28 and 30 at 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees on Dec. 17, 18, 26, 27, 31, Jan. 1 and 2. Tickets are available online at eventbrite.ca or at The Papery on 669 Fort St. Hitchcock said people can sometimes pick up tickets at the door, but the show’s popularity could result in them being disappointed.